Go With the Flow
With its Debut Recording, 5th Element Merges Hip-Hop Style into Spoken-Word Poetry, and Back Out Again
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Backed by a live band and a DJ, two guys took the Arena Players stage in July and wowed a packed house with their powerful vocals, contorted facial expressions, and kinetic body movement that read like a hip-hop sign language. And when they finished their funny, thought-provoking two-hour set, the audience stood on its feet to show its appreciation.
Jazzy poetry first entered hip-hop through early-’90s rhymesayers like the Roots and Digable Planets. Then Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam came along to trail-blaze spoken word out of the coffeehouse and into HBO-equipped American living rooms. Now Baltimore’s super-poetry group 5th eLement is coming at ya, seamlessly blending the spoken-word joint with MCing. And with its debut recording, The Dri Fish and Native Son Present: Circle Circle Dot Dot, Nobody Can Touch Me, 5th eLement tries to add poetry to hip-hop’s four elements.
On a sunny Thursday afternoon in September, two of the 5th’s four members sit in the upper level of the Inner Harbor Barnes and Noble oblivious to the folk-rock band setting up behind them. The thin, mild-mannered David Ross, aka Native Son, smiles warmly from underneath the locks that touch his Coppin State T-shirt. Femi Lawal, aka the Dri Fish, looks up from reading his Fantastic Four comic book, his eyes peeping out from under his signature snugly fit old-man golf cap. They’re here to preach about 5th eLement’s own spiritual concepts.
Ross is the spirit of group because of his peaceful nature, they explain; Lawal is the wind. “I’m more mellow and talk about things from a more spiritual aspect,” Ross says. “He’s a moving force. He can be cool or as hard as the wind can be.”
Droopy, the water, and Sir Reigns, the fire, aren’t around at the moment. As for No. 5, he was “a former member by the name of Complex was the earth,” Lawal says. “But he left, [so] the community is our earth now.”
5th eLement sprouted up from the local spoken-word poetry scene. Lawal and Ross met in the late 1990s through the Afrocentric Poetry for the People group. “When I first came on the [poetry] scene, I was totally feelin’ them,” Ross says. “I was an individual artist and I guess they liked what I was doing, so they invited me in the group, but it was at a point where they were going into other things as individual artists.”
Tight with other poets doing the same style of hip-hop-inflected poetry, the idea of forming a group arose. “We all sat down, and Sir Reigns was actually the one that was like, ‘Yo, we should be a group,’’ Ross says. “‘Since we’re all hot, why not have the hottest crew? Like the Dream Team or something like that.’ And we all thought it was cool.”
Onstage the poets-cum-MCs played off each other, and audiences responded. “People loved the idea of five dudes onstage harmonizing on poetry,” Lawal says. “Not like Boyz II Men. But it looked good and it sounded good. We were unified and knew each other’s pieces. The way we deliver our spoken word is not like quiet poetry. It’s theater, it’s hip-hop, it’s poetry all blended into one performance.”
The 5th eLement’s live show incorporates aspects of a hip-hop set as well as a poetry set. The fellas project their words with passion and pride yet invite audience participation like MCs working a room. They just don’t have to rely on beats to sway the crowd, working a few cuts a cappella.
In early 2003, Ross and Lawal believed it was a great idea to talk about recording, based on their good chemistry, live shows, and crowd response, but Droopy and Sir were more interested in working on their solo albums than a group joint. So Lawal and Ross decided to cut a duo album to represent the group. The result, Circle Circle Dot Dot, Nobody Can Touch Me, is a montage of cunningly conscious lyrics over hard-hitting beats.
The enigmatic title is a sarcastic joke on the typical inflated self-importance of poetry scenes. “When you look at a lot of spoken-word hip-hop CDs and songs, everybody’s trying to be extra ‘deep,’” Lawal laughs. So they decided to go with the kids’ saying, “Circle circle, dot dot, now you’ve got your cooties’ shot.” Nothing too deep about that.
Past the title, though, Circle Circle is an excursion into spirituality, the life of street kids, love, hip-hop’s overt thuggishness, and appeals to both the spoken-word crowd and hip-hop heads. The semiautobiographical “Lyrics to My Existence” explains Lawal’s background as a London-born son of Nigerian parents who moved to Baltimore as a teenager in 1989 and had difficulty fitting in ethnically as well as musically. In the community-conscious “Young Guns,” “Crooked Officer,” and “2 O’Clock in the Morning,” the 5th L voice their members’ collective observations on troubled youth, teen pregnancy, and police harassment.
Circle Circle isn’t all soul searching, though. The clever “Hey Lady” bounces between humorous and romantic with lines like “Hey lady/ so what’s your name/ hey, hey, hey lady/ Can you buy me a drink?” segueing into “We make a cute couple/ like beauty and the beast/ but if anyone should dare call you beast other than I/ I’ll rip their hearts out” and “I’d nickname you ‘comma’/ ’cause brothas pause midsentence when you walk in the room.” Sir Reigns and Droopy make guest spots on the album, as do New York blues singer Mr. Buford, local microphone ripper Abrock, poetic femme fatale JaHipster, and local poetry queen Olu Butterfly.
Ross and Lawal are no strangers to the stage and have perfected their performance at venues like Larry Stewarts, Gallery 409, and the Five Seasons over the years. And starting this month, they’re hosting a monthly poetry show called the Listening Session at a venue to be determined.
With these events, Ross and Lawal are hoping they can cut through the unspoken divide between Baltimore’s hip-hop and spoken-word scenes. “They are one in the same to me,” Ross says. “[The divide] is what the people have created. But I think it’s just that the presentation is different. We’ll go places and [audience members] are like, ‘OK, these guys are going to do poetry,’ and people are like [frowns]. They are thinking, Roses are red, violets are blue. But then they see what we do it’s like, ‘Oh, I like that.’”
And the guys in 5th eLement believe that hip-hop can learn from spoken word and vice versa. “When you hear about hip-hop [shows] you might think, It’s about to be rowdy in here, somebody smoking blunts, someone getting shot,” Lawal says. “Those are the stereotypes. Unfortunately, even supposedly conscious people still have stereotypes for things in hip-hop. Spoken-word poetry has been stereotyped, [too]. People think that they know what it is before they see it.”